The past four months I was living in Malawi, Africa. I was on a conquest to better the lives of others through service. My eagerness to jump into something uncomfortable and different than my previous life was part of my motivation for being a Peace Corps volunteer. I wanted to help without having a “save the world complex” but this ended up being more complex.
Before leaving I felt like I had no purpose and that my life would be better served helping those in need somewhere else. Peace Corps seemed like the perfect opportunity to be a leader, get out of my stuck circumstances, continue self-reliance, be more assertive, and to learn how to balance the challenge of helping others. All of which I did learn in unexpected ways.
Little did I know those good intentions are not always applicable. Our expectations of how things are supposed to pan out due to training and hopes often stand in the way of how things actually are. What we deem as helpful can sometimes be just as harmful.
Change is often small and undetectable. If one wants results helping a third world country as a lone volunteer, the search may be tiring and disheartening. The simple exchange of words at the market more impactful than interviewing village heads about the work that was needed in the community.
Small connections that broke the barrier of assumptions became the most important parts of my chunk of time in Malawi. If I did anything, I hope it was that I eased some generalization and deteriorated some of my preset interpretations. I tried to constantly remind my students and the people I worked with of the things that unite us versus the things that are not the same.
One of the most meaningful gifts we can give others is the opportunity for them to find the answers themselves. Peace Corps prides themselves on capacity building and using the people and resources available to create change. Theories are often good in theory but we face challenges when putting these theories into practice. The unlikelihood of sustainability and the realistic shortcomings that evolve from being an outsider trying to bring together insiders take their toll.
From contrasting and often conflicting beliefs and cultural norms to the necessary dependency on outside sources and people for survival, a volunteer can only do so much. When there is not enough for people to survive without more development, infrastructure, and overall tools for well-being it is difficult to shift a society by filling a job title and becoming a strange sort of idol just from showing up. No matter what one does, money, habits, language, physical differences, and cultural barriers are major separations and topics of concern.
Any form of comparison, wealth, skin color, education, material goods, religion, food, what we deem better or worse all giant contributors to discontent no matter what part of the world one is in. Just by being seen as a white American I was turned into this representation of “more” or “other”. No matter where I went or how many people I introduced myself to, I was still, “azungu,” and not Madi. My Malawian coworkers still called me this after asking others not to. Even if there was no malicious intent behind this friendly exclamation, there is the habit of categorizing a person into a concept versus a human, something we all are capable of doing.
Being a minority in any circumstance brings out a lot of ugly as well as strength. I ended up feeling shame and guilt for what I had accumulated and deemed meaningful, turning the mirror back on myself. All great change starts with realizing where our perspectives may need to shift.
The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us. ~Audre Lorde
What seems like very little to us in America is a tremendous amount to many in Malawi. Even while trying to conceal and blend in, our presence as volunteers was a constant reminder to those around us of what they were not and what they did not have. I am not saying that having or being more is not possible for those I served, it is more than possible, but the comparison is what makes trying to survive even more painful.
In America, we have so many choices, and we get bogged down on what is the “best”. We forget we are enough as we are because there is so much we could be, have, eat, or do. There are limitless possibilities, which can cause many anxieties and inadequacies. Then we go somewhere like Malawi, where there are often only a few choices, and as volunteers, we bring more choices in. The same pain of a “better” way stops all of us from experiencing the full joy of the way things are. Progress is necessary, and complacency is not the goal, but the comparison is crippling.
An unnatural power dynamic appears based on an unwanted image of privilege and wasn’t something I wanted to represent. Many people continuously asked me for money and could not grasp that we were there to create connections and not provide incentive. Conditioned relationships often become a major part of survival. Explaining unconditioned love, difficult.
In order to help a struggling society, there is the obstacle of money, the judging of differences versus finding similarities, and resources. The only way to deter these views was through my words, thoughts, and actions; though perspectives are often stuck in others and I can only control my own. Some of my perspectives difficult to alter when trying to accept differing cultural norms such as abuse of the disabled, women’s oppression, harmful superstition, malnourished/neglected children, domestic violence and animal cruelty.
I found myself looking at the bigger picture when starting to feel like I was not part of a greater solution. My living situation became unsafe and I had to make a choice of either accepting what was against my own values or to stay and do something I might not have been meant to do. I choose what to believe, do, see and hear. We can all change these beliefs or values at any time, but we have to decide which ones to hold on to or let go of. Beliefs either being our greatest barriers against love or what tears all of the barriers down. There is plenty of love and service to give no matter the location. We don’t need some grand purpose to matter to others, we just need to be a part of other’s lives.
Going to Malawi was a strong reminder that I am only a witness, capable of planting seeds that others can choose to water or nourish on their own. The fact that I have the freedom to choose which values I want to accept and which path is right for me, is a gift others may not discover in this lifetime.
Living my life and enjoying the people and opportunities I’ve been given is a way of honoring those who would love to be able to do the same. There is so much I have no control over other than the way I approach my life, and in turn that is how I affect other’s lives. My mistakes and lessons are mine to grow from, and maybe another can benefit from those lessons as well.
What seemed like problems to me before appears trivial now. Everything we do and think only a part of our growth at the time, as long as we always do the best we can and don’t harm ourselves or others along the way. Sometimes our best isn’t tremendous, but it’s enough as long as we continue to learn.
One of the most valuable lessons I was taught by being in Malawi is to appreciate every second. There was a joy to be found in the effort. When one must work for one’s needs, there is more gratitude for what one has. From carrying water and boiling it, being isolated in a place where you can only show parts of your identity, standing in a bucket to bathe, not having a healthy functioning digestive tract, constantly facing rejection, I will take much less for granted. Nor does rejection, confrontation, being misunderstood, or living outside of my comfort zone seem as scary anymore.
I’m not meant to save the world, I’m only supposed to be a part of it. Each interaction counts, and sometimes just interacting is the best way to be of service. We can stop seeking purpose but instead live with purpose.